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January 14, 2002

Post-9/11 holiday materialism

Gary Laderman is associate professor of religion


The events of Sept. 11 shook American society to its very foundations. It is still not clear what the psychic, cultural and political fallout will be in the long run, but three months later, in the midst of the most sacred season in America’s ritual calendar, the impact is unmistakable. The shadow of 9/11 looms large, and puts the holiday spirit in a new light.

The carnage from that day and its many consequences have led Americans to reassess their most fundamental values and consider what ultimately matters in life.

At first blush, the gift-giving frenzy that can overwhelm American sensory and cultural circuitry this time of year seems disturbingly disconnected from these reflections or ultimate concerns and basic values. The haunting, sorrowful experiences of those families and friends who lost someone on 9/11 only exacerbate our estrangement from the usual rounds of consumption—both in the malls and around the dinner table—that normally mark the end of one year and the beginning of a new one in American life.

In public gatherings and in private contemplation, most Americans will turn to religion, and their deepest religious resources to make sense of these unsettling events and reaffirm the stability, and divinity, of cosmic order. For some, this reinvigoration of religious consciousness will lead to open denunciations of the materialism so rampant this time of year; for others, religious considerations will lead to attenuated holiday celebrations and increased spiritual discipline away from the temptations of the market; for still others, religious inspiration will lead to anonymous donations to favorite charities.

In each of these cases, people tend to identify religion with actions and ideas outside of the marketplace, away from consumer spending and gift exchange. Even as we write the check or swipe the credit card, we consider materialism not just nonspiritual but antispiritual. We typically associate materialism with hedonism and emptiness—our Madonna rather than the mother of Jesus.

In the wake of 9/11, and during this holiday season, American consumers conditioned to live in the material world and spend, spend, spend are wondering a bit more than usual about the meaning of these actions, and their purpose in the bigger picture.

The president has been steadfast in his pursuit of two objectives: carry out justice and steer American citizens back to normal. With soldiers here and abroad doing their jobs, the American public must return to the markets, as Bush commanded in the days immediately the slaughter, to help find the way back. The market is where Americans can be normal, where all share a common and comforting identity: We are consumers and, contrary to conventional wisdom, consumer culture does not exclude forms of genuine religious expression and identity.

Indeed, during the past three months, politicians from the president on down have made it clear that the consumer’s individual role in protecting the nation through participation in the marketplace is a sacrosanct responsibility, a patriotic duty. Democracy, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—these and other American ideals have been jeopardized by these acts, a challenge the president met with two of his allies in the war against evil: the soldier and the consumer.

Before 9/11, we could find normality in a world of commodities, where the acquisition of DVDs, china, furniture, clothes, cars, jewelry, guns, sheets and toys fit naturally into American ways of life. The period between Thanksgiving and the day after New Year’s has been the bedrock of the consumer economy, generating the bulk of annual profits for entrepreneurs, small businesses and major corporations who bank on normal Americans getting into the holiday spirit and spending money on others as well as themselves.

It is hard to deny that Americans are materialist to the bone. Most of us consume to indulge bodies, our own and others’, buying with physical appearances, comforts and desires in mind. Historically, America has become a world powerhouse because of its material possessions and acquisitive powers—traits that inspire intense feelings of hatred and oppression in many countries around the world. But American materialist sensibilities today transcend the purely selfish or the purely sensual.

This holiday season presents an illuminating moment to consider just how and why gift-giving in the United States is as much about the spirit as it is about the body. The past 100 days have been dominated by fear of new attacks and anthrax, the military campaign to get Osama bin Laden, speeches from the masters of war and personal and collective efforts to memorialize the dead while work continues at ground zero. Under these conditions, the customary bombardment of slick, sentimental, joyous holiday ads promising consumers deeply emotional, if not implicitly religious, fulfillment through the purchase of this or that product strikes many as seriously, almost obscenely, inappropriate.

But these very products are the material stuff of everyday life. They provide Americans with the basic ingredients to creatively make sense of and bring order to their lives. At this time of year, the primary means to express human ties of affection, anchor meaningful celebrations of love and connection and give concrete form to immaterial feelings of trust, familiarity and appreciation is through the customary practice of gift exchange, a common and deeply religious ritual that does much more than redistribute material goods; the spiritual implications of bestowing a gift on another is a common feature of human societies throughout time and around the world.

The sacred remains in American festivities that encourage consumers to exchange gifts during the holiday season, too, a lingering, but unmistakably holy presence in the midst of rampant materialism, commercialization and sentimentalization.

A train set for the kids, a sweater for the son-in-law, a ring for the wife, a coffee mug for the father, a book for the friend—this is the stuff middle-class dreams are made of, the material things that matter most this time of year. They do not matter because of anything inherent in the matter itself, but in the material capacity to transmit feelings and reinvigorate significant relationships. The festive atmosphere so normal this time of year, a celebratory ethos that Americans are trying to reassert under this haunting shadow of death and human suffering, thrives when gifts are exchanged, giving concrete expression to the social bonds that link person to person and that revitalize the overall health and prosperity of the national spirit.

Continuing public reflection on the meaning and impact of 9/11, and sustained political attention to stimulating a dangerously weak economy, will only reaffirm the very spiritual concerns driving the engine of consumer culture.


This essay first appeared in the Dec. 23 Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is reprinted with permission.





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